Saturday, February 2, 2013

A funny thing happened on my way to The Cheesecake Factory...

"Dad, what's that?" "A bookstore son, eyes forward."
I came upon a bookstore, in a mall! And not an up-to-date, outdoor mall, either, but the old-school, burned-out type, with Spencer's Gifts and Auntie Ann's and children crying out for parents busy threatening to leave the store without them. And there I stopped to take this picture, as if having come across a deer frantically hobbling up the escalators, on its way to stampede through a plate of glass, so out of place was bookexpress' inventory, let alone its sheer existence, in the midst of boot cut jeans, exfoliants, and Hallmark cards. Or was it?

Blame it on the tendency to see that which you're looking for, but lately I've been noticing books everywhere, like relics from a time gone by, as if I've been sent back to the year 1984, when books still held a candle to TV, in terms of holding our attention, and thoughtcrimes were brought down by force. And before you post a comment about it being easy to see books everywhere when one works at a bookstore and never leaves their apartment, I'm referring to books' presence in the public sphere. Airports, for instance, which not all that surprisingly still cater to demand for books that can't be counted as an electronic device, but can be chewed on to relieve cabin pressure; department stores like Target and Wal-Mart, whose giant signs for BOOKS hanging next to those for BATH or MENSWEAR make the whole thing look like a hilarious, inside job of a joke about disposable income; toy stores, such as Brilliant Sky Toys & Books, which I happened upon the same night I discovered bookexpress, as if I was unknowingly about to star on Punk'd; and, why not, Barnes&Noble, which as far as I can tell is some kind of pay-as-you-go combination of all three, with better food and fewer security checkpoints. 

To be fair, the "Last Big Bookseller Standing" is itself in the process of reevaluating what the hell it's doing selling books. Having tried and failed to put the focus on its Nook reading device (Literally. Have you stepped foot into a Barnes&Noble recently? It's like being ushered through the door by a team of hosts eager not to show you something rank and motionless lying around their otherwise unique display of e-readers), which paled this holiday season (on the market, anyway), in comparison to other brands of Kindles, the bookstore chain now finds itself in the precarious, Clash-inspired situation of admitting it's not sure if it should stay or it should go... on selling e-readers or books or what.  

As the afore-linked to Knowledge@Wharton article suggests, "Barnes&Noble's biggest asset may be the reality that publishers need shelf space to sell books." With Borders out of the picture and Barnes&Noble, as I say, devoting more and more of their physical space to stuffed animals and signs reminding people about the internet, all that's left is bookexpress (which evidently is preoccupied with keeping in stock three titles at once and generally startling readers with its mere presence in their neighborhood) and independents, in the eyes of publishers looking for a space to give book buyers and, by extension, themselves the gift of something called "discovery," which, by all accounts, is lacking in the world of online retail, or as I tend to call it, "Muppet's Gift Shop." "Discovery" is basically the same idea, or question, rather, behind this round of blog posts: How much longer before we can teleport places? Er, rather, where do readers and non-readers "discover" books? Do I need to say "new" books or those as yet unheard of, or is their novelty implicit in the meaning of discovery? Look, for the record, I'm not talking about books you forgot you lent and re-"discovered" in the bathroom at your friend's house, underneath their toilet wand.  

According to several recent articles inspired by the Digital Book World Conference, bookstores' "share of purchases" continues to decline, with Amazon now soaking up a quarter of all book sales, while bookstores' role in finding certain books an audience is more critical than ever to those books, and our, success. Yes, four out of five people without HBO agree, "physical bookstores are the best place for book discovery." Still! In 2013! What this means is that while Amazon can sell the pants off Game of Thrones (and with glutes like Eddard Stark's to show off, who am I to stop them!?) it's lacking in emotional inference or, rather, the ability or care to draw your eye to books like I Could Pee on This, which I cannot, in good conscience, recommend. Not with my own unpublished book of poems in the voice of Mary Oliver waterskiing still looking for an agent.

Even though our potential as a primary source for "discovery" has dropped by more than 10 percentage points the last two years (Joe...?), perhaps because, as Pew Research Center has pointed out, the number of readers in general's decreased to--a still rather astonishing, considering however many DO have HBO--75%, many, including Matthew Baldacci of St. Martin's Press, are asking the same question: "If booksellers aren't there to recommend to the masses, what can replace that?" "What," indeed. Lest you think I'm simply proselytizing independents, I'm myself in awe of all the various and sundry formats in which literature finds itself for sale or free, but in any case at risk of being publicly well-misunderstood (I'm kidding: the last time I even made it through a memoir without mixing up its speaker with a character from TV, waxing on at parties about how difficult it must have been for so-and-so to grow up secretly knowing they were gay on top of being a vampire, was years before the premiere of True Blood).

These are strange days, indeed, with poetry on view at presidential inaugurations, city sidewalks, and, from what I gather, the inside of Dove chocolates, concurrently as fiction writers play themselves on hit series like Girls (Sunday nights at 9, on HBO) and famous hockey players blow up books by local authors. Why, just the other day at Starbucks with my copy of And Then, by LOCAL AUTHOR, Tim Nolan, in hand... Wait for it... These things take time... Not everyone saw Tiger Wood's tweet about Luke Longstreet Sullivan's book about hockey immediately, either... Alright, I'm moving on, but just you wait and see… Tim’s book will be on backorder from New York to L.A. this time tomorrow... So, anyway, my point was… TIM NOLAN… the barista asked me "What [I] had there?" and somehow finding in me the strength not to say, “My iPad,” I told her just how much I was enjoying Tim’s collection, how the poems read like inner-thoughts between the speaker and himself, full of Nicorette-sized metaphors you could chew on till you lost your taste for cigarettes, which must have been what prompted her to wink at me, as if, between the two of us, she couldn't stand the Birthday Cake Pops, either, and slide a piece of paper across the counter with a picture of Amber McRee Turner's novel, Sway, available to download free from now till March, when according to the Starbucks Pick of the Week website it "expires"; a minor, perchance semantic, detail one would hope was pointed out to Ms. Turner in the fine print of her contract.

Suffice it to say, I did not download Sway, but instead opted to use it as a bookmark in my perfect bound copy of This Is Not the End of the Book; a much-needed, at ease collection of conversations between Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carriere on the history and significance of the book as a physical object, as well as its place in the cloud, which I began reading after the American Booksellers Association announced its decision to partner with KOBO, making the Toronto-based eReading engine that could the official death knell of independent bookstores everywhere, while Frostie Blue Cream Soda remains our "soda of choice." I'm kidding, of course--it's Jarritos--plus, aside from the fact that KOBO's the first eReader and distributor to look to brick-and-mortar's as potential sites for revenue, I've yet to hear an argument on either side of the mostly fear-based Books vs. eBooks debate that didn't depend on misconceptions and devolve into a polemic about what books are and who they're for. As the southern poet and scholar, David Kirby, instructs us in What Is a Book?, books themselves are just one facet of what BOOKS represent, including readers, writers, critics and, finally, ink and paper. Hell, I even sort of love this ad for iKindles, which I saw for the first time while I was home for the holidays, in-between episodes of Boardwalk Empire, starring Michael Pitt and Steve Buscemi. 

Blame it on the music (I nearly once convinced myself that Pirates of the Caribbean 2 was a "masterpiece," in hindsight, based entirely on Gore Verbinski's soundtrack), but as Nina pointed out, by drawing our attention to those books that fall already into the cannon (Steinbeck, Melville, Hemingway, probably some women, etc.); the same ones Barnes&Noble's use to rest would-be readers assure that books are monuments whose noses are, in fact, lucky to rub, and reading is for geniuses, the iPad, like the Kindle, makes concessions to appeal to those who might otherwise think that eBooks aren't their thing. Much like the time I let a friend convince me "real men" power walk. He's right about one thing: few exercises can teach you so much about yourself in less than six and a half minutes, but give me a break. I might as well have been accepting an award on behalf of a non-profit. 

The question did occur to me, however: Say you're not Joseph Heller, or a famous woman author; how do you get your book on the shelf of a screen in an ad for computers? Or encrypted on the counter of a Starbucks for that matter? (It doesn't pan out just to set one there and walk away. Trust me. There's $50 worth of copies of I Could Ski on This I'll never see again.) 

Perhaps we should ask Erin Morgenstern, whose debut novel, The Night Circus, had no trouble finding its way in the dark of modern publishing, with a reported six-figure advance, international rights locked up before the book was finished (I have no reason to think that's true, but it feels true, doesn't it?), and...

Hellllooooooooo! Super fun display ideas!!! By the way, how does one type the word "hello" so that it sounds like when my sister calls to tell me it's our parents' anniversary or something? Is it really just a lot of "o's"? First person to comment on the "o" thing gets a free copy of Near Earth Objects: Finding Them Before They Find Us. Think The Age of Miracles, but fact-based, and yet somehow more far-fetched. 

Yes, there were copper bottom tympani in horse platoons the day that Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus came to town. Granted, here at Common Good, we failed to celebrate the book's release with puffs of smoke and caramel apples like some other stores, instead, if I recall, unpacking them distractedly before remembering we were talking about Morrissey. Yet, after the confetti, or sorts, cleared, for weeks I remained glued to the "Display Ideas for The Night Circus" handout sent to us by Anchor Books, which featured a collage of book displays as painstakingly assembled in bookstores across the country, like a glass slipper abandoned by some Brigadoonish fantasy world in which books are promoted in the same manner as films. That is to say, with money. 

No, it wasn't just the meretricious luster of skulls stacked on top of books bedecked with carnivalesque streamers underneath a glow of twinkle lights that caught my eye and, no doubt, that of countless unattended children drawn to colors, but the simple fact of their existence and the publisher's insistence that we not only read The Night Circus and form an opinion about it but attempt to hang copies from the ceiling like a line of showy laundry, without permanently damaging one. I'd never seen anything like it: not the laundry line, which after my initial sketches and a few disappointing trial hangs was deemed a "bad" idea, but the level of attention, which struck me as a product of a debatably alarming quote by Eric Simonoff that "Harry Potter taught publishers how to make event publishing resemble event-film releases." 

Lesson learned! The Night Circus was branded as a grownup's Harry Potter, not unlike deodorant that's strong enough for men, but made for really sweaty women, around what at the time of its release was being called a "post-Harry Potter book world." Yes, the damages incurred and refuge sought by an international community of readers at the end of page 953 of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was apparently enough to rally the support of the people who brought us the film adaptations of Twilight, who upon hearing the news immediately rolled up their sleeves to do their part in helping to bring this very real world of total nonsense back together, in costume. Having never read or watched a word of Harry Potter, instead opting to play some sort of makeshift, intellectual defense against adults who continue to accuse me of "hat[ing] fun and magic," I was, admittedly, bewildered by the image in my mind of an "adult"-themed Harry Potter, which I'd theretofore assumed was intended for a mature audience, based, again, on my experience of selling the books almost exclusively to readers over 30. "Why would anyone market the pants off of a book about sexually exploitative magicians?" I wondered, until I heard from a friend who had recently smuggled Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban from her seven and a half-year-old daughter's bookshelf that I was--however difficult this must have been for her to admit--mistaken, making the whole misunderstanding only slightly less confusing. 

What's no secret is that young adult (YA) novels like The Night Circus, but also Harry Potter and probably Jo Nesbo's books about cold-blooded murder and lust, as far as I understand it, have for some time been acting as levees against a cultural tidal wave of Attention Deficit Disorder and pictures of things on the internet. Such books, including those that are, in fact, for adults are important, in the sense that they drive people into places they might not otherwise go: mostly movie theaters, but also bookstores, libraries, and if the success of The Night Circus is any indication, very likely strip clubs. Extramural activities aside, however, what do we make of this as booksellers? I mean, with all this talk about books and "discovery," isn't it our job, in part, to focus our attention on the ones that don't come backed with a cross-country tour and guarantee of placement in an ad for books on iTunes; the ones that are not "conjured" like a scarf pulled out of thin air and just as imprudently tossed on the front cover of every other book aimed at women over 40 and/or under 17 by a network of media industry insiders; the ones that even Gary Shteyngart hasn't read? Or have I got it all wrong? Am I the one living inside a black and white striped circus tent? 

After all, George Saunder's Tenth of December was touted by The New York Times Magazine as "the best book you'll read this year," perhaps as a result is at the moment number four on the bestseller list, and really is "a heartbreaking work of staggering genius." And yet its proclamation as the "best" book of the year is a kind of commodification in its own right. Books, of course, are objects. Half the reason I buy books instead of e-books is based on their material, superficial value; a thing you might call beauty. But what's the use of writing if the only thing you want's a decoration, while the book withers away into an immutable placeholder for ideas rather than a work in need of readers to make sense?

All I know is if you want to compete in the 21st century, you'd better get an ampersand. That's why from here on out we're changing our name to Common Good Books & Magazines, Plus a Couple of T-shirts. Oh, and gratuitous use of the f-word. And nudity. As much as possible, nudity. Where'd that book go about Paris?

1 comment:

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